The impact of the economic exploitation of the Amazon has been a cause of concern that has left the circles of militant technical staff and environmentalists, made headlines, and entered the agenda of discussion on the streets in Brazil and abroad. It is a known fact that, especially in the southern and eastern portions, there is systematic pressure on the forest, which gives way to farming and mining.
Solutions to the environmental issue are certainly multifactorial, but first and foremost depend on resizing the way the problem itself is posed. Public debates often lead to a false contradiction between the generation of wealth and the preservation of the natural environment. However, these terms are only put this way because they set aside the key concept for reconciling preservation and economic interest: the development and application of new technologies.
The evolution of plants and animals, which for billions of years have adapted to survive and reproduce, has created a spectacular diversity that we humans, recent inhabitants of this planet, have received as a legacy – with the right to use, but also the duty to preserve. This infinite succession of trial, error, adaptation, and success of the natural selection is the largest and richest laboratory in the known universe. It provides answers that are far beyond the ability to calculate any prediction model we may dream of developing. And precisely this magnificent collection of data, if we so decide to call it, has its richest chapter in tropical forests, the largest of them fundamentally located in the Brazilian territory.
The way we think the Amazon should change from this point of view. As pointed out by an important study published by Brazilian researchers headed by Carlos Nobre in the international scientific journal PNAS, the model of occupation of the Brazilian forest is between the preservation areas and those that are released for low productivity economic activities, that is, unsustainable. This formation tends, according to research, to cause shredding of green areas, which in the long run makes it impossible for the forest to survive as a complexly integrated system.
The way out of this false impasse between economics and environment is to favor forms of wealth generation that add value through research and application of technologies, taking from the forest what it can best offer: useful knowledge for areas such as pharmaceuticals, materials engineering, biotechnology, energy, and even mechatronics. Tropical biodiversity contains, on several fronts, possible disruptive technologies whose trends will change our daily lives in the coming decades. In addition to the clearer applications, such as the development of new drugs from the study of substances produced by plants, amphibians and reptiles, or the use of enzymes to improve agribusiness production processes, there is also the global trend of biomimetic research, in which artificial equipment mimic animal and plant procedures developed in the long evolutionary process.
And this smarter form of economic exploitation of the forest is being praised by experts around the world as one of the foundations of the so-called 4th Industrial Revolution. The First Revolution, which happened about 200 years ago, was fostered by mechanization and coal energy, the Second by oil and electricity, the Third by computerization. Now we are going through a new moment of disruption, propelled by the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and also – with great emphasis – biotechnology. Its applications throughout the 21st century will completely transform how we deal with health, our approach to the production methods, how we wear garments, use transport, and feed ourselves.
On August 19, the population of São Paulo caught a glimpse of what may represent an environmental tragedy, when, in the middle of the afternoon the sky became dark as night, due to the soot from the northern burnings meeting a cold front which was passing through the Southeast. These are very eloquent signs of what is happening, and it is up to all mankind, but particularly the Brazilians, in the portal of this new age of knowledge that is beginning, to decide whether we will use our most precious asset for a technological leap into the future or, as we have already done in the Atlantic Forest, waste it by turning it into a transitory area for monocultures and pastures.